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Chew the Fat

A healthy diet plan for your chubby buddy

by Jean Hofve, DVM Reprinted with permission of Animal Wellness Magazine, © 2006,


Two-thirds of North Americans are overweight or obese, so it’s not surprising our dogs and cats are following right behind. Estimates of animal obesity range from 25% to 40%, and many more are overweight. In fact, it’s becoming uncommon for veterinarians to see a middle-aged animal that is not a little on the chubby side.

Experts say that preventing weight gain is much easier than treating it. That’s true—but it’s not particularly helpful! Many of our animals are already past that stage, and now we need to deal with their existing weight issues. And with good reason. Obesity is unhealthy, uncomfortable and often painful. It can also shorten your animal’s lifespan by triggering or contributing to a variety of serious health problems.

Of calories and carbs

Experts also say that losing weight is simply a matter of decreasing the calories going in and increasing the calories going out, usually via exercise. (Aren’t those experts annoying?) But there’s more to it than plain calories – it’s the type of calories that are important, because they each have a profoundly different effect on metabolism and, consequently, weight.
Many veterinary nutritionists say the source of calories doesn’t matter, and that calories from corn, for example, aren’t handled any differently by the body than those from other sources. But corn has a very high glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index is a scale of how fast and how high blood glucose rises after consuming a particular food. Cornmeal, or ground yellow corn, has a GI of 68 – the same as granulated sugar!

High GI foods encourage the body to store more fat. They also cause swings in blood sugar that can lead to insulin resistance and even diabetes. High GI foods include simple carbohydrates, grains, and starchy vegetables such as yams, green peas, and potatoes.

Dogs and cats are carnivores, although dogs can survive on a much wider variety of foods than cats can. Carnivores naturally eat an “Atkins” type diet with high protein, high fat, high moisture, and low carbohydrates – the typical composition of prey animals.

The benefits of high protein, low carb diets have been extensively studied in cats and include weight loss, diabetes prevention and urinary tract benefits. Only a few similar studies have been conducted in dogs, but they also gave favorable results. Dogs given high protein, low carb foods lost weight more slowly, but they lost more fat and conserved lean body mass better than dogs eating a typical high carb diet.

The trouble with kibble

Dry food is a source of highly concentrated calories. Think about how many potato chips (dry) you can eat,compared to how many mashed potatoes (wet) you can stuff yourself with. Even when loaded with gravy, mashed potatoes are mostly water, and that dilutes the calories.

What about those “lite” commercial dry foods formulated for weight reduction? They tend to be lower in fat and protein, and higher in fiber, than regular foods. They sacrifice the most important nutrients for added carbs and are definitely not the right approach for healthy weight management.

You may be thinking, “Gosh, dry food is so much cheaper, I don’t know if I can afford anything else.” But remember the old saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Your animal will pay the difference in lost health if you feed him cheap, poor quality food, and it will catch up to your wallet when the vet bills for obesity- related diseases start accumulating.

Dieting is not the answer

As many of us know all too well, dieting is hard. And it’s no easier for our animal friends. It can even be dangerous. Starving a cat or dog down to his “ideal” weight does not address the cause of the problem and is no different from giving suppressive medications for other illnesses. Cats in particular are susceptible to liver failure if weight loss diets are too radical, or food changes are made too quickly. While it’s vitally important to change what and how we’re feeding our tubby pals, it’s even more important to switch foods gradually. Make sure your animal is eating and eliminating normally. A little diarrhea is not a problem, but a severe case of it is!

What it all comes down to is what common sense should tell us: dogs and cats really ought to eat the diet that nature intended them to eat. Fortunately, there are many ways to provide an appropriate carnivore diet to your companion.

Four diets that fight fat

1.Canned food

This is the easiest choice, and for many animals the most palatable. Just be sure you’re buying a premium product. Choose one that lists named meats on the ingredient label (not just “meat” or “animal” products) and some fresh veggies. Avoid by-products and large quantities of starchy grains.

2.Raw frozen

Ready to try a raw meat diet? Many reputable companies make balanced raw frozen diets that come in convenient patties or rolls. Health food stores often carry one or two brands, and specialty pet stores are also good sources. As always, make the switch slowly.

If you’re uncomfortable with raw meat, you can lightly cook these diets and still retain nearly all their nutritional value. While I believe that raw is best for most animals, it is not appropriate for all. Very young and very old animals, and those with gastrointestinal problems, may not be good candidates.

Not all raw diets are truly complete; some nutrients, such as calcium and taurine, may be in short supply. Do your homework and ask questions! These diets tend to be expensive because they do most of the work for you, but they’re a great way to get started with raw food.

3.Diet mixes

These are supplement mixes you add to meat to create a complete, balanced diet. They make the homemade food process simpler. Some have grains, some do not. Some have multiple parts, such as enzymes, vitamins/minerals, and oils. Do not skip any of the supplements – they are all absolutely necessary! These products allow you to control the most important part of the diet, the meat. You choose it, so you’re certain of the quality.


A cooked or raw diet you make yourself is another option, but may not be for the faint of heart, or the uncertain of commitment. If you’ve got multiple animals or big dogs, it can be quite a bit of work. It also requires education and dedication. Ultimately, the cost works out the same or less than canned food, especially if you find local sources
of bulk ingredients.

With any diet program, remember to use variety! One of the most common mistakes people make is to let the animal gradually narrow down to the one flavor or ingredient he likes best. Different meats have very different amino acid profiles, and vegetables contain wide variations in vitamin and mineral content. It’s possible to cause a severe deficiency by failing to provide enough variety.

Supplements for weight loss


Digestive enzymes: plant – or yeast-based products containing protease, lipase, amylase, and sometimes cellulose. They help the gut break down food more effectively, so the animal gets maxi- mum benefit from the nutrients. These enzymes are crucial for animals eating cooked or processed foods.

Probiotics: beneficial bacteria that keeps gut cells healthy and working at maximum efficiency.

Essential fatty acids: it may not seem sensible that a fat animal needs more fat, but most of our animals are way overboard on Omega-6 fatty acids and deficient in Omega-3s. Fish oil is the best source of EPA and DHA, key Omega-3s important for skin, eyes, heart, and nervous system health. Choose oils from non-farmed fish, or oils that have been molecularly distilled to remove pollutants and other harmful chemicals.

Just nixing the low-end kibble will go a long way toward helping your animal lose weight and get healthier. An all-canned diet is a proven solution for cats, and also appears to be helpful for dogs. The bonus of adding fresh foods to the diet – bright eyes, clean teeth, sweet smell, shiny coat, and of course, normal weight – will often become apparent within a few weeks. But it’s the changes on the inside that will keep your companion with you for years to come. Isn’t that what matters most?

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